Centre forward

What does the centre-ground look like in a Brexit era? Gisela Stuart and Atul Hatwal survey the landscape.

Gisela Stuart

The referendum in June changed a lot, but not everything. The fundamental rules of politics have not changed. You listen to voters. You campaign on an agenda they care about. As a result they put sufficient trust in you to deliver what they want that they then vote for you.

Talk about the political ‘centre-ground’ conjures up an impression of an electorate aligned tidily along a left-right spectrum that can be competed for at the margin in a two-party system as each party tries to expand its coalition of support to sufficient size to win a majority in a general election. The success of the Scottish National party in Scotland and of the United Kingdom Independence party in many traditional Labour areas in England and Wales has changed this simple logic because Labour faces competition for voters on numerous fronts, making a simple politics of so-called triangulation much more difficult to achieve.

But most members of parliament, particularly those with marginal constituencies, know that this is part, but not all, of the story. To win you need to remain connected to your constituents – for them to believe that you are listening to their concerns and that you are doing what you reasonably can to make a difference on their behalf. To do that a party needs to have a highly organised and effective campaigning structure that is not just about getting a message to the electorate – which Labour can do quite well – but about having a process in place to get the message right.

If you fail to do that and focus on the political competition between parties then you can fail to notice if a large part of the electorate becomes detached from party politics altogether. The European Union referendum showed that a large section of British working-class voters have become disconnected from Labour and do not naturally identify with either the party or the Labour movement. This is not something that began with the leadership battles after 2015 but arguably goes back to the later part of the Blair years. Labour’s challenge, therefore, is more fundamental than whether or how it captures the centre-ground but whether it wants to or can represent the views and aspirations of Britain’s working-class electorate.

Change Britain, which I chair, is a new organisation launched this autumn by a team who were at the core of the Vote Leave campaign and who are now working with some of those from the ‘Remain’ side who want to build on the connection that the referendum made with British working-class voters. Since Change Britain launched in early September we have started a series of focus groups across the country. The process has just begun but a few things are already clear.

Those who voted to leave the European Union did so above all because they reject the idea they should be subject to EU laws and EU courts. They are not anti-immigration and certainly not anti-immigrant – they see the huge value Britain gets from skilled, hard-working people coming to make a contribution here. But they believe the immigration process should be under our control and managed to ensure that housing, education and health services are not under pressure and the impact on communities is reasonable. They recognise that the free movement of people makes that impossible. They also want to see change. They feel that their vote in the referendum means they are already changing Britain and they want to continue to play a part.

Two things are worth noting from what we have learned so far. The first is a very positive lesson. The referendum has re-engaged a large part of the working-class electorate that had become disillusioned with politics. There is a strong sense of confidence, optimism and hope and a willingness to be part of making Britain’s future a success.

The second lesson is more sobering. Even those who have been lifelong Labour voters do not see the Labour party as speaking for them. Labour is seen to represent the concerns of London rather than the country as a whole. Many of the messages in Theresa May’s speech at the Conservative party conference, however, hit the precise concerns and aspirations we are hearing from our focus groups.

Labour needs to think very hard about what it does next because the signs are that many of the British working class do not think of the Labour party as their natural home. The starting point for Labour is to go back to the fundamental rules of politics and to listen to voters again.

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Gisela Stuart MP is chair of Change Britain

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Atul Hatwal

On the evening of 23 June this year, a fog descended over the centre-ground of British politics.

The defeat of the ‘Remain’ campaign seemed to break an immutable law of politics – that it’s the economy, stupid. Instead, the result appeared to be all about immigration, and the people who had relied on economic concerns to keep Britain in Europe were the ones on team stupid.

Then there is the ascent of Theresa May. Her government’s right-turn into a world of grammar schools and the hardest possible Brexit has coincided with unprecedented Tory poll leads over Labour.

It looks a lot like the centre of British politics has shifted decisively to the right. But appearances can be deceptive.

Politically the most relevant question about 23 June is not why ‘Leave’ won, but why a campaign to remain which followed familiar economic beats failed when the same backing track had proved so persuasive at the 2014 Scottish independence referendum and at the general election.

In those campaigns, targeting concerns about the economy convincingly defeated Scottish nationalism and crushed the United Kingdom Independence party’s English anti-migrant nationalism the following year. So what changed? Answer: nothing.

The British Election Study, which conducted waves of research immediately before and after the European Union referendum with a huge panel of 30,000 voters, has helped clear the fog. Before the vote, 65 per cent thought that after Brexit either the economic situation would get better, stay the same or didn’t know, versus 35 per cent who thought things would get worse. In comparison, 55 per cent felt that immigration would be lower if we left the EU. For the majority, voting for Brexit did not definitively bring bad things but would reduce immigration and also give a whack to the establishment. This is the view of eminent academic John Curtice, whose recent article was cited by Dominic Cummings, architect of Vote Leave’s strategy, as the best analysis of what actually happened.

These BES numbers suggest that ‘Leave’ might have been on track for a much bigger win but that worries about the economy did resonate in the final vote for those who wanted lower migration (which included roughly half of Remainers) but were risk-averse on the economy.

The post-referendum BES survey shows that 93 per cent of those who thought that Brexit would make Britain worse off voted to remain while 90 per cent of those who thought it would make Britain better off voted to leave. These findings prompted Curtice to comment, ‘Rarely do survey data show so sharp a divide between two sets of voters.’

The BES numbers on the continued importance of the economy over immigration have been underlined by subsequent research. For example, a recent YouGov survey cited by Eric Kaufmann at Birkbeck highlighted that 62 per cent of the public would accept EU migration at current levels if cutting numbers meant that they would have to bear any cost at all.

In this context, the pertinent question about 23 June is: why did people not believe the economic threat?

Data is sparse but after decades where Europe has been portrayed by politicians and media exclusively negatively, not least by David Cameron, it is probably not surprising that entrenched perceptions were difficult to reverse in a six-month campaign.

The misguided notion that immigration trumps the economy has fuelled the myth that May has redefined the centre-ground. It is true that she is the most anti-immigration prime minister in decades and has secured huge poll leads, but this mistakes correlation for causation.

She might register extraordinary margins over Labour but equally she would have been similarly ahead whether a Merkelesque liberal on migration or a Trumpian hawk who wanted zero net migration.

The reason for her lead can be summarised in two words: Jeremy Corbyn. Labour is behind on the economy by high double digits, behind on preference for prime minister by higher double digits, and behind on national security by even higher double digits. Immigration is not the prime determinant of the Tory lead over Labour. The notion that the centre-ground has moved is a mirage. It’s still the economy, stupid. The problem for Labour is that politics is a comparative business. May’s hard Brexit approach might be calamitous for the economy but the public think that Corbyn would be worse.

When the economic costs of Brexit are really felt, May will be vulnerable. The public will be desperate for a party that occupies the centre-ground. If only Labour could be that party.

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Atul Hatwal is editor of Labour Uncut

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Comments: 9...

  1. On November 2, 2016 at 10:41 am Alf responded with... #

    Corbyn has redefined the “centre ground”. It’s now well to the left of Labour’s Tory-lites. New Labour was a failure. Wasted years. So, support our leader. Support Corbyn!

  2. On November 2, 2016 at 11:42 am JRC responded with... #

    The idea that the arguments employed against Scottish Nationalism were persuasive is delusional. If the campaign had continued for a couple of weeks longer Scotland would probably be an independent country. There was little appetite for independence at the beginning of the campaign and the case against it pushed people towards it not away.

    The reason the same tactics didn’t work against Brexit is because it was an equally stupid case being made that paid no heed to the issues that people were concerned about. Fear based negative campaigns have a history of failure yet the Labour right think they succeed, why is that? The right of the party would prefer Theresa May to be PM than Jeremy Corbyn, that much is clear but for a centrist, by their terms, to win would require a self awareness of which the likes of Mr. Hatwal are incapable. Your version of centrism may stand a chance, Mr. Hatwal if you ever told us what it is but as far as we can make out it amounts to, “boohoo, i don’t like the nasty man (substitute any name other than Tony Blair’s) can you make him go away”, or if it is a referendum “BOO!”.

    Labour is behind in the polls because people like Atul Hatwal continue to think that personal attacks, scaremongering and triangulation are a substitute for thinking and campaigning and to their huge discredit a large part of the Labour PLP behave in the same way.

    It is genuinely idiotic to blame Jeremy Corbyn for the state of the Labour Party. The fact that so many of the leading and influential people in the party behave as if this is a reasonable viewpoint to hold goes a long way towards explaining why the party is considered so irrelevant. We are where we are because we have been where we have been. Trying to blame where we are on being where we are is stupid.

  3. On November 2, 2016 at 2:34 pm David Lindsay responded with... #

    Theresa May has abandoned the failed austerity programme, and she has sacked George Osborne. The centre ground applauds that, having always called for it. The centre ground will now support her against many of her own side, and it will then press her to deliver, on workers’ and consumers’ representation in corporate governance, on shareholders’ control over executive pay, on restraining pay disparities within companies, on an investment-based Industrial Strategy and infrastructure programme, on greatly increased housebuilding, on action against tax avoidance, on banning tax-avoiding companies from public contracts, on capping energy prices, and on banning or greatly restricting foreign takeovers. Again, the centre ground has always called for these things.

  4. On November 2, 2016 at 4:54 pm Elizabeth McIntosh responded with... #

    So the arguments crushed the SNP! Last time I looked they were in their third term as government and all bye 3 Scottish MPs. Some crushing.

    The highly negative campaign is Scotland to frighten people into a No vote just worked. It probably immunised people elsewhere especially when the popular media stopped supporting the Fear/Remain camp and played up the possibility of a healthier economy on Exit.

    The problem with those in progress who talk of the centre ground is that they are increasingly incapable of dealing with a sequence of issues and events with any meaningful plan. Instead they seek to recover a position that has vanished. They have a simplified vision of the world and are unable to face new challenges. Rather they seek to eliminate what is said by the leadership of the party and solidify binary divisions within it. They need to take accountability for their approach and realise the great harm it is doing to our electoral position.

  5. On November 3, 2016 at 6:51 am Peter Carabine responded with... #

    Brexit was the triumph of stupidity over intelligence. The tabliod media ( except Mirror) was viciously Brexit to the extent that lies were told and the Brexit rabble of Boris, Gove, Farage & Ian Duncan Smith were given disproportionate air time by the BBC. Disproportionate because 6 political parties opposed Brexit but the BBC were told to give equal time to Farage whose party had one MP and the right wing chancer Boris Johnson and Gove who were able to comment daily on main news programmes.

    Their economics was deeply flawed be it in the denial of the positive effects of migration on our economy which as it ages needs young workers and moreover as it booms needs our European workers. The presence of global companies from General Motors to Goldman Sachs was denied in the sense that they are here for the foothold into the 500 million consumers of the EU. That tabliod readers did not get a fair grasp of the EU was down to Murdoch, Desmond and Darce’s manipulation but also a weak and now discredited BBC and an ineffectual Labour leader with a weak grasp of the consequences of Brexit for working class lower income voters.

    We now sink into a distorted economy with a slumping currency which will worsen in 2017. There is no centre left force for 16 +!million voters and growing who remain frustrated and unrepresented by Hard Brexit May and the most unpopular Labour leader in 116 years whose chances of winning the next election as our PM are the lowest ever estimated for any leader well below Miliband, Ian Ducan Smith , Micheal Howard, Micheal Foot and Ian Duncan Smith. We need an alliance of the Centre/ Centre left to save ourselves and our country.

  6. On November 3, 2016 at 7:59 am Verity responded with... #

    The debate has been constructed upon a discussion as to whether Labour is not winning as a consequence of its inability to retain its working class support or is not able to adapt philosophy to moderation in order to capture a new and more difficult to specify ‘centre ground’. To make the radical changes that the new Labour leadership wants requires a huge majority so the answer surely has to be both. The argument that the Labour Movement is loosing its connection with the working class is surely not arguable. Canvassing for votes shows it to be accurate. Neither groups by themselves address the state that the UK has a powerful, privileged establishment that retains influence and power despite Labour governments, surely if there is a case for a Corbyn radical alternative that combines both it is this.

  7. On November 3, 2016 at 9:17 am JRC responded with... #

    I can’t seem to get the reply function to work properly but this is in response to Peter Carabine.

    Your post sums up everything that the rest of the population seems to think about the Labour Party and exactly how I think of the right of the Labour Party. It is rude, arrogant, entitled, clueless, directionless, paranoid and on most facts wrong.

    If you are a fair reflection of the party outside of Corbyn supporters then the only thing binding the party together is the common belief that the media is out to get you. What the right of the party seem to add to this is a propensity to see every disagreement with them as evidence of conspiracy or stupidity on their opponents part. Brexit was the result of people being damaged and hurt by the effects of globalisation and not being properly consulted or informed about the benefits or reasons for it by government from anywhere in the west over the past twenty years. If you want to find the culprits, which I don’t because it is futile, then Blair and Brown are your people. They are the guilty parties. Blaming the media or Corbyn may make you feel good but it is as ridiculous as Atul Hatwal blaming Corbyn for the state of the Labour Party. It is like me driving my car into a tree and blaming the tow truck driver for the state of the bonnet.

    The only thing that I have become confident of about the Labour Party over the course of the leadership and Brexit campaigns is that my observations of your rant will be taken, not as rational observations, but as slavish adherence to some cult leader or deceit by media. It will definitely not be taken as something that those on the remain or anti-Corbyn side should learn from.

    We have a centre left force and it has a leader. They are the Labour Party and Jeremy Corbyn. If you and your comrades on the right of the party wish to campaign against that then, more power to your elbow, we live in a democracy. So far though the campaigns have been “Miliband is rubbish but we can’t beat him”, and “So is Corbyn and we can’t beat him either”, the obvious subtext being: “How crap must we be?”, I remain uninspired.

    The Labour Party is bristling with new ideas and good future prospects for leadership in a way that has not happened for twenty years. Those leaders will be the one’s who don’t give in to the name calling and recriminations that the right seem to be obsessed with and will follow Corbyn’s lead and start to work from where we are now. If you want a different direction for the future then you have to take the majority of the Labour Party with you first and stop wishing it all away.

    • On November 3, 2016 at 6:05 pm Peter Carabine responded with... #

      Responding to JRC I would say 1) you have not challenged my assertion that the most of the press/BBC (but not impartial Sky News, C4 or ITV) was disproportionately pro-Brexit and that most parties & commentators agree for example Will Hutton of the Observer & Oxford, Professor Wren Lewis of Oxford and Craig Oliver, the former BBC editor & Cameron’s Director of Communications. Look at the Daily Express, everyday , tomorrow (especially following high court case).
      2) Globalisation was possibly a mixed blessing for the UK but overall like the EU it increases overall GDP and the Brexit vote links with it are problematic especially with older voters …Sunderland/Nissan had to be rescued last week. UK financial services are global has hundreds of thousands of jobs & its EU disengaging would hit our tax revenues. Yes we are agreed Corbynites could have pushed the wider economic case for Globalisation and how it’s helped the UK

      3) Voting for UKIP or Brexit or Trump does not mean I have to sympathise as interpretation of the problems is often falsehood, latent racism and distortion/misinterpretation. The upsurge of Syrian war refugees was nothing to do with the Brexit case. UKIP vote is higher in Clacton but there are few migrants there etc

      4) Corbyn’s Labour party is not mine and I cannot support a party whose chosen a leader who is the most unpopular in 116 yrs existence. It’s politically bonkers.

      5) You are in denial about Brexit, Sterling in meltdown, 50% food/energy imports, rising prices, harder inflation, shrinking wages, shrinking UK assets, capital flight, falling UK rating, falling pensions, Companies going to the EU, more jobless, issues over UK government debt and gilts, reduced tax revenues, reduced public services/wages …as the fund manger Alberto Gallo said recently in the FT ” The poorest & most vulnerable , the same people who voted for Brexit will be hurt most” To which we can add they will not be voting for a party whose polling is lowest for 45 years.

      • On November 4, 2016 at 10:18 am JRC responded with... #

        You are right I didn’t. Just because you are paranoid does not mean they aren’t out to get you. The media will always hunt in packs in a completely amoral way. It is for progressives to overcome that reality, not just wish it away.

        We are not agreed. Corbyn bears absolutely no blame for not sharing the good news on globalisation, he is not a proponent of it especially not in its neo-liberal libertarian manifestation that goes under the guise of free trade at present. The right of the Labour Party and Blair in particular stopped arguing its benefits a long time ago preferring to give in to what the polling and focus groups said was selling better on the doorstep. Corbyn came to the party long after that ship had sailed, he bears no responsibility for Brexit or the causes of Brexit.

        I don’t understand point 3.

        Point 4 is self-justificatory circular twaddle. If you only consider a party to be “yours” if everyone else supports it first then you have no political principles. If you think that following the media propaganda makes your decision the “triumph of stupidity over intelligence” to be blamed on biased press coverage, as you began your first post by saying then the same reasoning must apply to Corbyn. His press has been far more negative than Bremain’s. So not only is point 4 self-justifying circularity, you also appear to be calling your own opinion the triumph of stupidity over intelligence.

        I am not in denial about Brexit I am simply not prepared to allow the future to be left in the hands of those who fought for Brexit whilst their opponents bleat about how stupid those who voted for them are. The world is as it is and the future will start from now. You are like the person when asked for directions begins by saying “well I wouldn’t start from here”. Nor am I prepared to accept the argument that your, or the Progress wing of the Labour Party’s, failure to do anything is Corbyn’s fault.

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